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April 2, 2018

Joseph the Patriarch in the Homilies of John Chrysostom

By John Lee Fortner

As Johannes Quasten has noted, “Among the Greek Fathers none has left so extensive a literary legacy as Chrysostom.” This collection of texts is particularly rich in the area of exegetical homilies, comprising sermons by Chrysostom on Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah and most of the books of the New Testament. Throughout these exegetical homilies, Chrysostom draws on key figures in Jewish history to illustrate the points of his exegesis. These figures include such notables as Job, Daniel, David, Moses, Abraham, Jacob, and most importantly for this study, the figure of Joseph. Chrysostom focused on two key events in the life of Joseph: Joseph’s relationship with his brothers and the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife. These events in the life of Joseph were used to portray him as a moral exemplar, particularly focusing on his patience and endurance through suffering and his temperance or chastity in the face of his confrontation with Potiphar’s wife.


Before looking at Chrysostom’s use of Joseph as a moral exemplar, it is important to note that he does associate the visit of Joseph to his brothers and his betrayal by them as a typology that points to events in the life of Jesus. This typology was alluded to in Chrysostom’s homily on the speech of Stephen in Acts 7. In Acts 7.9 Stephen narrated the sale of Joseph by his brethren, and Chrysostom concluded that this event was, “the type of Christ. Though they had no fault to find with him, and though he came on purpose to bring them their food, they thus ill-treated him.” This typology was further developed in Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis. In Homily 61 Chrysostom noted that Joseph was sent by his father to visit his brothers “so that Joseph’s regard for his brothers might be demonstrated and their murderous intent might come to light.” Chrysostom added, however, “it happened also as a type of things to come, the outlines of truth being sketched out ahead of time in shadows.” The correlation of the shadow with the truth was, according to Chrysostom, to be found in that Joseph willingly went to his brothers, who betrayed him in their desire to kill him a nd in their eventual sale of their brother to desert traders. Likewise, “our Lord in fidelity to his characteristic love came to visit the human race; taking flesh of the same source as ours and deigning to become our brother, he thus arrived amongst us.”

Chrysostom found the precedence for this typology in Heb 2.16-17, noting the relationship of Christ taking on flesh to be like his “brother s”: “It is not the condition of angels he takes to himself but descent from Abraham-hence the need for him to become like his brothers in everything.” These brothers were the “unresponsive Jews,” who, however, went further than Joseph’s brothers, carrying out their desire to kill by “crucifying the one who deigned to take on the form of a slave for our salvation.” 349 Chrysostom highlighted the importance of the difference between the two noting, “The type had to convey less than the reality - otherwise it would not have been a type of what was to come later. Hence, in that case, things were prefigured as in shadow.”

This example of Chrysostom’s use of typology is illustrative of the parameters observed by him when progressing beyond his usual literal or moral exegesis into a spiritual meaning for the text. Chrysostom sought in this typo logy a clear textual precedence for looking beyond its literal meaning. In this case, the similarities of Joseph being betrayed by his brothers to Jesus’ own life were highlighted by the text of Acts 7. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 recorded several events in the history of Israel, connected in part by a theme of rejection and persecution of key prophetic figures such as Joseph and Moses. Stephen ends the speech by associating this theme with the rejection of Jesus by the people of his own time: “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.” In addition, Chrysostom cited support for his typology in the passage from Heb 2.16-17, which connected Jesus’ incarnation into flesh as a coming in order to be like his “brothers.”

These scriptural precedents thus allowed Chrysostom the latitude to view the betrayal of Joseph as prefiguring Christ’s betrayal “in shadow.” The idea of these events as shadows is in part similar to the idea of shadows from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Chrysostom viewed the Holy Spirit as casting a light which illumined the events of Jesus’ earthly life, and in that light events from the history of Israel were cast as shadows. The shadows mirror events in the life of Jesus, but only in the form of outlines. In order to understand these types and their fulfillment in the life of Jesus, the interpreter must be illumined by the Spirit. In this sense, Chrysostom’s use of typology bares similarities to the allegorical interpretation seen earlier in Origen’s homilies. At issue for both approaches was the relevance of the Old Testament to the New, and the connections that could be forged between them for the reader of these texts. Chrysostom, however, as a member of the Antiochene School was more reticent in his use of a spiritual interpretation than Origen.

Moral Exegesis

Chrysostom demonstrated in his homilies a marked preference for moral or exhortatory exegesis. Manlio Simonetti noted that “the primary objective of his rhetorical output was to draw out of the sacred text a lesson to educate, warn, or edify his listeners, rather than to illustrate the text for its own sake.” This preference for exhortatory homilies is certainly noticeable in Chrysostom’s use of the figure of Joseph as a moral exemplar. Joseph was an important example for Chrysostom, because he preceded the giving of the Mosaic Law. In a discussion concerning being patient while undergoing suffering, Chrysostom noted that he could use Moses as an example but he desired to go back even further. Chrysostom argued that, “The gr eater the antiquity of the examples cited, the more we are convinced by them.” The reason for placing greater weight on pre-Mosaic figures was th at in their time, “virtue was harder to practice. For those who then were living did not have commandments written down, or the example of men’s lives.” Chrysostom then used Noah and Joseph as exemplars of patient endurance of suffering. As noted earlier, Henry Chadwick argued that this was a common practice of the patristic writers who desired to “look back to the patriarchs before Moses who had no Law to keep other than the moral imperative of the inward conscience.” Focusing on these pre-Mosaic figures, was one weapon used in the apologetic distinction of patristic writers between Christian and Jewish claims on the history of Israel. Thus, as Eusebius noted, Christians tied themselves to the pre-Mosaic patriarchs because the later Israelites “were unable through moral weakness to emulate the virtue of their fathers, inasmuch as they were enslaved by passions and sick in soul.”

Chrysostom’s moral allusions to Jose ph focused on two key events in his life: his relationship with his brothers and his confrontation with Potiphar’s wife. The prominence of the theme of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers in patristic literature has been noted by M. Dulaey. Chrysostom focused particularly on Joseph’s patient endurance of the suffering caused by his brothers, and his willingness to forgive them for their intrigues against him. Chrysostom noted that Joseph’s visit to his brothers as they were shepherding in the fields was made in good faith, without any suspicion or malice toward them: “he set off to them carrying provisions; he used no caution; he committed all to God: nay, the more they held him in the light of an enemy, the more did he treat them as brothers.” This was to serve as an example to Chrysostom’s listeners, that relationships with outsiders should be characterized by “simplicity” in order to imitate the early Christians from the book of Acts who had “favour with all people.”

The brothers, however, were envious of Joseph and this was the source of their betrayal of him. Chrysostom argued that envy was capable of destroying charity and disrupting the lives of his parishioners, because “the despotism of envy has upset whole churches and laid waste the whole world.” This was exemplified in that, “because of it his brothers [plotted to kill] Joseph; because of it the Devil [seeks to] destroy all men.”

Chrysostom heavy-handedly censured the conduct of the brothers , and as a result his depiction of their relationship with Joseph was cast in clear black and white, good versus evil categories. Chrysostom lamented the cruelty of the brothers, noting “even though they had been provided by him with nourishment they tried to deprive him of his life and freedom.” This cruelty was even more starkly portrayed in that the brothers sat down and ate the food Joseph brought them, while he was lying naked in an adjacent cistern. Chrysostom concluded: “What could be worse than this savagery? Were they not worse than murderers?” Chrysostom also accused the brothers of “unlawful frenzy” and “dreadful malice.” This heavy censure of the brothers was likely influenced by the typology, discussed earlier, where the brothers’ betrayal of Joseph was linked by Chrysostom to Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion by the “unresponsive Jews.” Chrysostom is infamous for his anti-Semitic barbs, particularly in the series of sermons Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, which criticized parishioners who participated in Jewish festivals. As noted before, the speech by St ephen in Acts 7 had earlier made the connection between Joseph’s brothers and the Jewish community that had rejected Jesus, and Chrysostom also consistently made this connection in his polemic against the brothers.

The envy of Joseph’s brothers and their sale of him to desert traders, became, according to Chrysostom, the immediate cause of Joseph’s years of suffering in Egypt. Chrysostom argued that his brothers, “betrayed him to ten-thousand deaths by selling him to savage and uncouth men, who were about to go away to foreign peoples.” Joseph, however, did not hold this grievance against his brothers, but was willing to do good to his enemies. Chrysostom noted that while in prison Joseph interpreted the cupbearer or butler’s dream, and asked him to remember him when he was restored to favor by Pharaoh. Joseph then explained to the cupbearer why he was in prison, but Chrysostom noted that in Joseph’s explanation, “though he had been sold, and made a slave, and had tenanted a prison, uttered not even then a bitter word against the authors of his sorrows.” Instead, Joseph simply noted that, “Indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews,” but as Chrysostom noted he “addeth not by whom.” Joseph did this because, “he feels more ashamed for the wickednesses of his brethren, than they who wrought them.” Chrysostom exhorted his listeners to imitate Joseph’s attitude, arguing that “Such too ought to be our disposition, to grieve for them who wrong us, more than they themselves do. For the hurt passeth on to them.” In another homily, Chrysostom argued similarly that Joseph’s forgiveness and acceptance of his brothers should be an example to his parishioners in their treatment of enemies. Chrysostom exhorted them to action, arguing “Since we know all of this, let us forgive the trespasses of our neighbors and repay them with the opposite that we may obtain the mercy of God.” Joseph was a particularly powerful example to follow, according to Chrysostom, because he was a pre-Mosaic figure from the history of Israel: “For what excuse shall we have, after being given the Law and grace and such true wisdom , if we do not even emulate him who came before the giving of grace and the Law?”

Joseph patiently endured under the suffering that began with his brothers, and Chrysostom pictured his steadfastness as characteristic of an athlete under the pressure of competition. Chrysostom noted that, even though Joseph would “suffer trial upon trial,” he endured as a “noble athlete.” This was particularly true of Joseph’s time in prison, and for Chrysostom, this period of Joseph’s life was depicted as one of the great challenges to Joseph’s faith in the promises of God. Chrysostom described Joseph during his stay in prison as an “athlete under pressure,” who was “competing in some gymnasium or wrestling ring, giving a demonstration of his characteristic virtue by not showing signs of alarm, panic, or disappointment.” Even when the cupbearer, whose dream Joseph had interpreted, forgot his promise to remember Joseph when restored to his position, Joseph still did not lose hope. Instead, as a virtuous athlete, “he realized that the race was longer for him, so that by striving consistently he might win a glorious crown.”

Part of the difficulty of this experience for Joseph was attributed to the conditions of the prison he was resident in. Chrysostom described the fellow prisoners he was housed with as “squalid and filthy people,” who were condemned as “murderers, grave robbers, thieves, and perpetrators of countless crimes." Chrysostom also noted the harshness that was typical of most custodians of prisons, labeling them as “wild beasts.” Prison keepers were “practiced in cruelty....They profit by the misfortune of others, and harass those whom others support in their afflictions, making a ga in of them that is truly deplorable, with a more than brutal cruelty.” Chrysostom’s criticism of the prison keeper was possibly drawn from a similar description by Philo. He noted in his treatise On Joseph that “Everyone knows how full of inhumanity and cruelty gaolers are: pitiless by nature and casehardened by practice, th ey are brutalized day by day towards savagery.” The reason for their inhumanity was that:

they spend their days with footpads, thieves, burglars, men of violence and outrage, who commit rape, murder, adultery and sacrilege, and from each of these they imbibe and accumulate something of their villainy, out of which miscellaneous amalgam they produce a single body of evil, a fusion of every sort of pollution.

The similarities between the two accounts continued in Chrysostom’s recognition that Joseph was treated kindly by the prison keeper , because “the virtue of the soul can mollify even wild beasts.” Likewise, Philo noted that the prison keeper was “tamed by the nobility of the youth.” Since the prison keeper had been mollified or tamed, he allowed Joseph to become a ruler or governor of the prison, and Chrysostom related this to his governance of the house of Potiphar: “Thu s, Joseph was again a ruler, he ruled in prison as he had ruled in the house.” Chrysostom argued that this was good preparation for Joseph’s eventual position as governor of Egypt, for “it was fit that he who was to be a governor, should first be an excellent ruler of the house.” Philo also recognized this relationship, noting that when Potiphar appointed Joseph as steward of his house, “in fact and reality it was nature ’s doing, who was taking steps to procure for him the command of whole cities and a nation and a great country.” The reason for this, according to Philo, was that “the future statesman needed first to be trained and practiced in house management; for a house is a city compressed into small dimensions, and household management may be called a kind of state management.”

The other key facet of Chrysostom’s moral exegesis was his extensive retelling of the incident of Joseph’s confrontation with Potiphar’s wife. Chrysostom labeled the woman a “wild beast,” and described her “lewdness a nd her machinations for his destruction.” Chrysostom, however, also noted her strong qualities of beauty and charm, which made her particularly alluring to Joseph: “For what was there not then to charm him? A beautiful person, the pride of rank, the costliness of garments, the fragrance of perfumes, (for all these things know how to soften the soul,) words more soft than all the rest!” Potiphar’s wife was not content to rest on the strength of these qualities, but rather pursued Joseph, “taking upon her the attitude of a supplicant.” Potiphar’s wife went to great lengths in order to entrap Joseph: “she threw herself at the knees perhaps of the captive boy, and perhaps even intreated him weeping and clasping his knees, and had recourse to this not once, and a second time, but oftentimes.” Chrysostom also suggested that Potiphar’s wife dressed provocatively in order to secure Joseph’s attention, so that “not simply but with excessive nicety would set off her beauty; as wishing by many nets to catch the lamb of Christ. Add here I pray also many magic charms.”

Chrysostom’s retelling of this scene drew from a stock of legends surrounding the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. This event filled with sexual suggestiveness and valiant moral stands proved ripe ground for imaginative expansions by various writers. In much of the post-Biblical literature, this pa rt of the narrative became the most important element of Joseph’s life to be remembered. Louis Ginzburg recorded the midrashic legend of Potiphar’s wife dressing provocatively. The midrashic writers noted that she “arrayed herself in princely garments. She placed precious stones upon her head, onyx stones set in silver and gold, she beautified her face and her body with all sorts of things for the purifying of women.” Also, The Ethiopic History of Joseph noted that Potiphar’s wife longed for Joseph every day, and to entrap him, “She [painted her eyes] with antimony, she scented hers elf with perfume, and she changed into varieties of beautiful dresses in Joseph’s presence." The later work, Sermon On Joseph the Most Virtuous attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, noted similarly that, “by changing her clothes, making up her face and decking herself in gold, the wretched woman tried to entrap with satanic nods and shameless smiles th e holy eyes of the just young man.”

The Testament of Joseph recorded, much like Chrysostom, that Potiphar’s wife employed magical charms to entice Joseph. He noted that the woman, “sent me food mixed with enchantments,” but Joseph refuse d to eat because of a vision given to him by God of a “frightening man who offered me a sword along with a bowl.” Likewise, the Testament of Reuben recorded that Potiphar’s wife, “did many things to him, summoned magicians, and brought potions for him, but his soul’s deliberation rejected evil desire.”

A key theme throughout Chrysostom’s account of Joseph’s temptation was his extraordinary virtue of self-control or chastity. When Potiphar’s wife finally despaired of all other measures to seduce Joseph, she re sorted to forceful measures grabbing his cloak and pulling him to bed with her. Jose ph, however, left his cloak behind and fled naked from the woman. Chrysostom delighted in recounting this scene, drawing out the irony of the naked Joseph leaving all but his chastity behind him. Thus, in his Homilies on Genesis , Chrysostom noted that “Then one could see this remarkable man emerging, divested of his clothes, but garbed in the vesture of chastity.” Similarly, in his Homilies on Matthew Chrysostom argued that Joseph, “when he stripped himself, did then more than ever shine forth. For to be thus naked is no evil, but to be so clad, as we now are, with costly garments, this is both disgraceful and ridiculous.”

Chrysostom favored this scenario when criticizing the elaborate clothing of some of his parishioners. In Homilies on Colossians, Chrysostom pleaded with these parishioners to “Put Christ about thee, and not gold; where Mammon is, there Christ is not, where Christ is there Mammon is not.” Chrysostom contrasted the clothes of Potiphar’s wife with the nakedness of Joseph as support for his exhortation: “He was naked, but clothed in the garments of chastity; she was clothe d, but more unseemly than if she had been naked; for she had not modesty.” This was also a key theme in other early Christian writers. Clement of Alexandria observed that when Potiphar’s wife took hold of Joseph’s coat, “he divested himself of it, becoming bare of sin, but clothed with seemliness of character.” Likewise, Ambrose proposed that Joseph, “left behind the clothing by which he was held, and fled away, stripped to be sure, but not naked, because he was covered better by the covering of modesty.”

The importance of this theme of chastity (sofrosyne) in Hellenistic Jewish literature was discussed earlier. A few additional examples from the literature demonstrate the consistency of the use of this appellation to describe Joseph. In Josephus, Joseph was warned by Potiphar’s wife that he should acquiesce to her advances or taste her wrath, “should he reject her suit and set more st ore on a reputation for chastity (sofrosyne) than on gratifying his mistress.” The woman’s pleading and threats were ultimately to no avail, and Josephus depicted her as weep ing with the knowledge that, “neither pity could induce him to unchastity (min sofrosyne) nor fear compel.” Likewise, Philo noted that Joseph rejected the advances of the woman, because “so strong was the sense of decency and temperance (sofrosyne) which nature and the exercise of control had implanted in him.” Later, Philo stated that Joseph’s behavior toward the woman would serve him usefully in his political career, because “if the results of licentiousness are civil strife and war, and ill upon ill without number, clearly the results of continence (sofrosyne) are stability and peace and the acquisition and enjoyment of perfect blessings.” Patristic writers, such as Chrysostom, freely borrowed this appellation accorded to Joseph as the chaste or moderate patriarch in their own re-narrations of the story.

Chrysostom used the idea of God’s providential ordering of the events of Joseph’s life as a unifying theme in his homilies. In his Homilies on Acts, Chrysostom addressed the way that “God ordered events,” and specifically the irony in the lives of figures such as Joseph, where “the very things by which we are hurt, by these same are we benefited.” In support of this, Chrysostom noted that th e plans of Potiphar’s wife seemed to ruin Joseph, but ultimately saved him because, “by he r contriving she placed him in a place of safety: for the house where that wild beast (of a woman) was kept was a den in comparison with which the prison was gentle.” Thus, God’s Providence oversaw a complete reversal in Joseph’s circumstances, “So that the fact was not that he got into prison, but that he got out of prison.” Likewise, though Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, “they freed him from having en emies dwelling in the same house with him...they placed him far aloof from them that hated him.” This was also true of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, who forgot Joseph’s pl ea to remember him when he regained Pharaoh’s favor. Chrysostom argued that this forgetfulness was ordained by God, so that Joseph’s subsequent exaltation “might be more glorious: that the whole might be ascribed, not to man’s favour, but to God’s Providence.” Again, Chrysostom highlighted the irony in this event, noting “Therefore, it is that the eunuch forgets him, that Egypt might not forget him, that the king might not be ignorant of him.” All of these events acted as constraints to keep Joseph in Egypt, so that he could ultimately save his family: “first by subjection to a master , secondly by being in prison, thirdly by being over the kingdom, to the end that all of this might be brought about by the Providence of God.” This was also a central theme in Chrysostom’s reflection on Joseph in his Homilies on Genesis. At the conclusion of his reflections on Joseph’s sufferings and his final exaltation as ruler of Egypt, Chrysostom noted “So, being in di stress and trial is a mark of the loving God’s great car e and providence in our regard.”

That this was a key topic in Josephus’ writings has been demonstrated by Harold Attridge, who argued that the theme of God’s Providence formed “a consistent pattern of interpretation of the events of biblical history in the Antiquities.” Louis Feldman has argued that this was also a theme specific to Josephus’ paraphrase of the life of Joseph. For instance, after refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife and being thrown into prison, Joseph did not attempt any defense against his unfair imprisonment, but rather “silently underwent his bonds and confinement, confident that God, who knew the cause of his calamity and the truth, would prove stronger than those who had bound him; and of His providence he had proof forthwith.” In a similar manner, when Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers he attributed their earlier cruelty to him as a function of God’s Providence. Josephus recorded Joseph exhortation to his brothers that it was not, “through your own nature that ye did me ill, but by the will of God, working out that happiness that we now enjoy and that shall be ours hereafter, if He continue to be gracious to us.” One reason for the prominence of this theme in Joseph, was the importance of the idea of providentia in Roman religion. As Robert Wilken has argued, the providential ordering of world events was a key theme in the Roman cult, and the term appears repeatedly on Roman coins. The active intervention of the gods was foundational to Rome’s survival thus, “Through the providence of the gods the earth came to life each spring, the wheat bloomed, the trees bore fruit, and the heavens opened to provide rain.” Josephus emphasized this quality in Israel’s God, as a central platform in his cultural apologetic for the values of Hellenistic Judaism.

Chrysostom certainly knew and valued the writings of Josephus , and cited them as direct support in several of his homilies. In his Homilies on Matthew, Chrysostom argued that Jesus’ prophetic warning in Matt 24 of coming calamities was addressed specifically to the Jews. As proof that this prophecy was fulfilled in the Jewish war against the Romans, Chrysostom urged his listeners to read the “writings of Josephus, and learn the truth of the sayings.” Josephus was, according to Chrysostom, a valuable witness, “For neither can any one say, that the man being a believer, in order to establish Christ’s words, hath exaggerated the tragical history.” Chrysostom also cited Josephus as a source in his Discourses Against Judaizing Christians. As confirmation of his interpretation of certain prophecies from the book of Daniel, Chrysostom offered the work of Josephus, in order that his listener s, “may know that my words are not based on mere conjecture.” Josephus was, according to Chrysostom, “a witness whom the Jews regard with the highest trust...who has made th eir disasters a subject of tragic history and who has paraphrased the entire Old Testament.” In light of this, Chrysostom’s use of this theme of God’s Providence points toward a direct reading of and borrowing from Josephus’ own paraphrase of the life of Joseph.

Chrysostom, similarly to the other early Christian literature surveyed by this paper, manifested a consistent concern for elucidating the connections between the history of Israel and his own community. Chrysostom attempted to do this through some use of typology, but mainly through moral exposition which drew upon figures, such as Joseph, because of the rhetorical power of their great antiquity. Christianity and its virtues were not something new and thus illegitimate. Chrysostom could trace its origins to the venerated history of Judaism, forming what Rowan Greer labeled a “sacred history presided over by God’s providence.” Chrysostom’s source and model for many of the key themes in his moral exegesis of Joseph can be traced directly to the literature of Hellenistic Judaism. Drawing upon this literature, Chrysostom proposed that this ancient figure from Israel’s past was an apt exemplar for timeless virtues. As Chrysostom argued, concerning Joseph, toward the end of his Homilies on Genesis: “Who could adequately admire the virtue of this good man who fulfilled in generous measure the moral values of the New Testament?”

Source: “Much More Ours Than Yours”: The Figure of Joseph the Patriarch in the New Testament and the Early Church.